Anti-clockwise; Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural at the Ashmolean Museum

As a grad student, I wrote a study of the Tiberius Cup, now in the Louvre, originally found in the silver hoard of a villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii. The cup depicts a triumph of the (future) Emperor Tiberius, and is the only known realistic depiction of this archetypal Roman event in the whole corpus of Roman art.

The major defining study of this artefact is by Ann Kuttner, who argued, in a book length study published in 1995, that the cup (and its brother, the Augustus Cup) were silver reproductions of the four sides of a large-scale monument that once stood in Rome; a monument which no one else, in art or writing, had bothered to mention existing. I was unconvinced and built my essay, for which I received one of my highest marks, around an interpretation of the scene centred upon its presentation on a cylindical cup. The curvature of object corresponds to the scene itself, I argued, which both relies upon a cyclical narrative to make sense and, crucially, by depicting figures in a consistent direction of movement from left to right, drives the viewer to turn the cup in this direction with their hands to see the progression of events.

I mention this essay because in a way it set up my favourite moment of engagement with this exhibition, which was undoubtedly the best to be held at the Ashmolean in the three years I’ve been a regular visitor. In the first room, quite close to the start of the display, there was a vase with the signs of the zodiac painted on. I looked and, with the arrogance and single-mindedness typical of my sign, immediately spotted it – Aries, the first sign of the zodiac.

Now, knowing my Mithras from my Mystic Meg, I know that Taurus follows Aries, so looked to the right and was greeted by… Pisces, the twelfth and last sign of the zodiac. Eh? It took me a moment before I realised: Arabic, the written language of the Qu’ran, is read right to left, so of course it follows the the same is true of its visual language!

This is what a really good museum exhibition should do: provide enough information to situate you in what you are looking at, and then confront you with the acculturated differences that make this the product of a distinct society. It was so fascinating to see something as recognisable as the zodiac not only presented in a visual language not my own, but assuming that separate way of viewing as the norm – the cup spun anti-clockwise. Too often museums displays can go to one or the other extreme – either they can assume too much knowledge and be very distancing, or (far more commonly) reduce everything to recognisable parts of our own culture and thus make the whole of human history just seem a little, well, samey, as though the world is only so many different brands of the same basic product. With this though we have a superficial similarity underlay by an intrinsic difference, so that something as simple as reading the zodiac can become a cultural experience.

There was much otherwise to commend the exhibition. It was a very good example of the kind of exhibit the Ashmolean can do really well: that is, a ostensibly narrow and academic subject dealt with in great depth. While the British Museum is often caught trying to explain everything about a whole culture to everyone from toddlers to academics (witness ‘Vikings’), the more intimate space of the Ashmolean galleries means displays can really hone in on certain historical themes and moments, and here the theme of supernatural was explored with reference to a wide range of artefacts from across the muslim world. I’m not knowledgable enough about Islam to know what was lost by adopting a curatorial approach that spanned centuries and continents in the same display case – but as a novice I found this holistic style very engaging.

That’s not to say that the exhibition was perfect. This was clearly a display designed for contemplation – for reading all of the information, mulling it over and reflecting. It was, thus, very much one for the grown-ups. I wonder how much this was governed by a desire not to be seen to trivilise any part of the still flourishing Islamic tradition; a worry that the curators of the Sicilian Shipwrecks exhibit of a few months ago, who put a Poseidon-themed kids game halfway through the exhibit, didn’t have to contend with. Regardless of the motivation, I felt the displays did lack a little, how to put it… fun. I think music could have been used to good effect, for example, particularly towards the end of the exhibition, when visitors could be forgiven for feeling a little tired (especially as the first room was in half-darkness to preserve the precious displayed manuscripts). I also felt that the interactive screens were underdeveloped in the displays: I was especially disappointed by a touchscreen version of a book early on in the display which, aside from providing the opportunity to turn the pages, offered very little information.

But these are only minor niggles. ‘Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural’ was an excellent exhibition and I would fully recommend going. I would even go so far as to say, following Tiberius around the cup, that it was a triumph!

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